Interview: Utter Impracticability of Aeronautics & Favorable Opinion on Wireless

Reprinted in The Newark Advocate, April 26, 1902, p. 4.


British Lord Tells His Hopes For Wireless Telegraphy.


The Master of Modern Science Believes Wireless Talk With Faroff Planets Possible—Declares That Dirigibility of the Air Is Utterly and Absolutely Impracticable.

There is no man of science now living whose pronouncement on almost any scientific question would have equal weight with that of Lord Kelvin, says Garrett P. Serviss in the New York Journal. Consequently his opinion on scientific matters now prominently before the public mind possess special interest and importance. The first question that I asked him the other evening related to the navigation of the air. Lord Kelvin naturally does not wish to appear as criticizing Mr. Santos personally, and his reply is to be taken in a general sense as bearing only upon the subject of aerial navigation without particular reference to the Brazilian inventor. He was very emphatic in the declaration that there is northing practical about dirigible airships.

"Do you think it possible," I asked him "for an airship to be guided across the Atlantic ocean?"

"Not possible at all," he replied.

"On what ground do you think that the airship is impracticable?"

"Because no motive power can drive a balloon through the air."

"Your objection, as I understand it, rests upon the unwieldiness of the balloon, but how about the aeroplane? Do you think that that is practicable?"

"No; no more than the other."

"Then we cannot navigate the air at all in a commercial way?"

"No; I think it cannot be done. No balloon and no aeroplane will ever be practically successful."

"But, Lord Kelvin, you remember the experiments of the German, Lindenthal, who used a gliding machine, starting from an elevation and riding down the slope of the air?"

"Yes, but Lindenthal simply threw away his life. He was killed during his experiments, and later on another gentleman who had undertaken the same sort of flying also sacrificed his life. They both threw away their lives without any possibility of success in what they were undertaking to do."

"Then it would appear that, in your opinion, we have no hope of solving the problem of aerial navigation in any way?"

"No; I do not think there is any hope. Neither the balloon, nor the aeroplane, nor the gliding machine will be a practical success. The balloon is the best of all."

"But you think that the principal of the balloon cannot be applied to make a successful airship?"

"No; I do not."

This very decided opinion of Lord Kelvin on the impracticability of any of the present methods of solving the problem of aerial navigation certainly seems to throw a wet blanket on the whole matter.

But on the next subject that we approached Lord Kelvin had a very different kind of an opinion to express. This was wireless telegraphy. In regard to that his opinion was not only favorable, but almost enthusiastically so. He thoroughly believes in the success of the Marconi system.

"You look, then, for a rapid practical development of the system of trans-ocean wireless telegraphy?"

"Yes; I do."

"Do you think that the system can be extended over the land also as successfully as over the sea?"

"That remains to be seen. I think it can be, but very likely the transmission over the ocean will be easier than over the land."

"Have you an opinion, Lord Kelvin, as to the manner in which the electrical waves are transmitted?"

"Well, I cannot say definitely. I think they go through the ether, probably above the surface of the sea."

"Do you think they could be transmitted outside or beyond the earth—for example, between the earth and the moon?"

"I think it possible. I think it possible that the earth is not essential in the transmission of the waves—that they could be set up in the ether in the absence of the earth. So far the earth has seemed to form an essential part of the system. They have been transmitted between different places on the earth, but perhaps they could go also through space if there were no earth."

"Then they could go from planet to planet?"

"Yes: it is possible."

"Do you think that the message can be rendered entirely secret by [syntonization]?"

"Secrecy is no object. It does not matter whether they can be picked up or not. The object is to transmit messages to the one who desires to receive them. If secrecy is desired, it can be obtained by means of code. That is the method even now by the old system of telegraphy."

"So you put no great weight upon the question of making the messages secret?"

"No; I do not. They can be rendered secret enough."

It is evident that Lord Kelvin has complete confidence in the future development of wireless telegraphy. He was unhesitating in the expression of his favorable opinion of the system as it now exists and of the certainty of improvement that awaits it. This is in complete contrast with his entire lack of faith in the experiments pertaining to navigation of the air.